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An “Air Conditioning System” Might Exist on Some Planets Outside Our Solar System

Posted on: July 20, 2016

Some extraterrestrial planets might have an “air conditioning system” that allows for life.

Some exoplanets, orbiting M dwarf stars, might have an environmental “air conditioning system” built in that allows them to support life. Yellow dwarf stars, such as our sun, we know have the ability to support life. However, there is another, much more common and often ignored type of star, whose planetary systems can also be ideal for harboring extraterrestrial life. Known as M dwarf stars, these are the most common stars in the Universe.

When one stares up at the evening sky, none of the visible stars are M dwarfs. These “tiny” stars, many times smaller and less bright than our own sun, can’t be seen with the un-aided eye. However, M dwarfs are by far the most common stars in our galaxy, comprising some seventy percent of all the stars in the Milky Way. Before now, scientists seeking extrasolar life have veered away from studying M dwarfs. As they put out much less amounts of light and heat, compared to our sun, the general consensus among scientists was that they were to host habitable planets. But, there’s been a recent shift in habitable planet search strategy.

According to researchers, the exoplanets, possibly harboring life, could be tidally locked because of the closeness of the planet’s orbit to the M dwarf. “Tidally locked”, means that these planets surfaces always have one side facing the star, just like the moon does around the Earth. This positioning could possibly stabilize the exoplanet’s climate enough to harbor life. However, the side facing the M dwarf might be very hot while the side facing away would be very cold.

Emerging simulation models illustrate how tidally locked planets might have a natural “air conditioning system” that allows warmer air to circulate to the night side and cooler air to circulate to the warmer side of the exoplanet. The result is an overall warm environment that might be capable of supporting life. Under these simulations, ideally, the cooler air is transported from the dark to the light side. On the light side, the atmosphere is heated by the star. This then rises to the upper layers of the atmosphere, where it is transported to the dark side of the planet again.

Even planets can have an air conditioning system! More study is planned to refine these theories. NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is due to launch in 2017 to observe more exoplanets and to serve as a guidepost for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope in 2018.

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